After a career that touched eight decades, British illustrator Denis McLoughlin gained a degree of long overdue recognition in the late-1990s for his hard-boiled detective illustrations that graced book covers produced primarily for the London publishing house of T.V. Boardman, Ltd. (Boardman Books). It is this work, no doubt, with which McLoughlin will always be most strongly associated. Bio-bibliographer David Ashford claims for McLoughlin, "In the history of British Illustration there is no one who can be reasonably compared to him. He does not fit anywhere into the British tradition." Ashford concludes that when it comes to hard-boiled illustration, McLoughlin is simply the best.
Despite having produced over a hundred paperback covers, about 550 monthly Bloodhound Detective dust jacket illustrations, "scores" of Bloodhound Detective Story Magazine and other pulp magazine covers, and over a hundred other book covers, it is for his work in British comic books that Denis McLoughlin is best known. However, it would be impossible to consider the biography of Denis McLoughlin without touching the history of the Boardman publishing house at the same time.
Denis McLoughlin was born on April 15th, 1918, in Bolton, Lancashire, England, where he still resided at the time of his death, April 22, 2002. Always interested in drawing, McLoughlin credits his artistic influence as film, pulp magazines (particularly the covers), and American comics. In the 1930s he collected American True Detective type magazines and American pulp magazines. McLoughlin also sought out the work of Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon, Secret Agent Corrigan) who he also calls an influence. On scholarship, in 1932, he attended the Bolton School of Art, which survives today as the Bolton College of Art, but left the same year for employment with Ward & Copley Art Studio of Oxford Road, Manchester. At Ward & Copley from 1932 until about January 1940 when lack of business ended his employment, McLoughlin found himself creating product illustrations for catalogs and newspaper advertisements for 10/- a week.
T.V. Boardman, Ltd., was but one of many London publishing houses turning out both paperback and hardcover books, pulp magazines, and comics. Boardman pioneered British reprinting of American comics. During the week of October 16, 1937, the first issue of a Boardman tabloid comic in the traditional British format, Okay Comics Weekly, arrived at newsagents all over England. The content was mostly American newspaper strips and the first issue sported a cover strip by Will Eisner. Okay lasted only until February 26, 1938, or a total of twenty issues. At about this same time, other British publishers experimented with reprinting American comics and imports of the real thing began to land on British shores. It rapidly became apparent that a significant British market for American comic books existed.
However, the British declaration of war on Germany on September 3, 1939, immediately halted the official importation of American comics into the United Kingdom although masses of American comics intended for G.I.s began arriving in 1942. Already with a taste for American comics, Thomas Volney Boardman, Sr., made an arrangement with Everett Arnold of Quality Comics to produce British editions of two titles, Feature Comics (#29-33) and Smash Comics (#7-11) all appearing in 1940-1941. Because Boardman needed low priced titles to please his primary outlet, WWoolworths Group's Department Stores, the British editions reprinted only about half the content of the American originals. To use the rest of the pages, Boardman created two additional corresponding titles in the American style, Super Funnies (#29-33) and Mystery Comics (#7-11).
Drafted in March 1940, Denis McLoughlin served with the Royal Artillery's 101st Light Anti-Aircraft (Ack-Ack) and Anti-Tank Regiment (later the 1st Armoured Brigade). He managed to practice his art by painting a rhino insignia on the regiment's vehicles and by painting at least 37 murals of different sizes in various military buildings. His unofficial position of regimental painter gained Denis much greater freedom than the common soldier and allowed him several opportunities to practice his art. In the beginning, he painted officer's portraits for 5/- each. Soon, however, a London publisher, Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., offered him work painting book covers at the rate of £5 each. The first of these covers was for Frank Gruber's Navy Colt which appeared in 1943. Other covers followed for Wells Gardner, Darton & Co. which eventually recommended McLoughlin to Boardman Books. Having no work, however, Boardman passed Denis on to Australian owned Kangaroo Books.
For Kangaroo Books (their logo looked amazingly like that of America's Pocket Books), McLoughlin painted a few paperback covers but primarily produced joke books. The publisher paid £18 each for these which included writing about 50 jokes, illustrating them, and producing the cover. After doing the first joke book, probably Laughter for the Home Front, solo, McLoughlin enlisted the aid of his brother Colin (b. November 2, 1925) with the writing chore. Thus began a working relationship between the McLoughlin brothers that would last at least into the 1950s and that produced New Laughs for All, Laugh While You Work, You've Had It, and This Is It for Kangaroo.
It was for Kangaroo books that Denis McLoughlin produced his first comic book work. He created an eight-page adaptation of General George Armstrong Custer's last stand based primarily on his hazy memory of the film They Died With Their Boots On. The story seems likely to have seen publication in an unnumbered and undated 3d (three pence, that is) issue of Lightning Comics sometime between 1943 and January 1946.
Denis McLoughlin's "official" association with Boardman began after his January 1946 military discharge and took the form of a three-year book cover contract. Of McLoughlin's extensive cover work for Boardman Books a great deal could be said. However, in late-1947, T.V. Boardman, Sr., decided to go after a portion of the market for "American style" comic books left unfilled by the departure of the American army and the British governments continued ban on comic book importation. Boardman's re-entry into the comic field took place during a post-war comics publishing boom in England. McLoughlin's contribution to Boardman's comic publishing caused author Denis Gifford to call him "Boardman's one-man art department." Beginning in 1948, Boardman's comic book production followed two paths, inexpensive rotogravure comic books and lavishly produced comic annual publications .
Boardman's three pence rotogravure series began monthly production in February 1948. Issues were twelve pages long and used both front and back covers as story pages. They were printed in three colors (generally black, white, and red or green) on clay coated paper and saddle-stitched at the spine. In American publishing, they most closely resemble Will Eisner's Spirit Sunday newspaper inserts. Mildly inspired by Alex Raymond, Denis and Colin filled the first seven issues with the adventures of detective Roy Carson and adventure/science fiction hero Swift Morgan alternately. Although titles changed with each issue, numbering remained consistent to the entire series. Issue eight saw the addition of Buffalo Bill reprinted from a Swiss source but always repackaged by Denis. Eventually, Denis would create some original Buffalo Bill stories for the series but his involvement with other projects for Boardman caused the reprint content of the rotogravure series to increase. Still holding the rights to material from Quality Comics, Blackhawk (at least sixteen issues) and the Spirit (probably only two issues) were added to the rotation of titles. These reprints were always repackaged by Denis McLoughlin. The twelve-page rotogravure format lasted for 44 issues until October 1951. In February 1953, the series numbering continued but with color covers and black & white interiors until probably sometime in 1954. It seems possible that number 61, featuring Blackhawk, was the last issue. Rebound newsagent returns of the rotogravure series were released as Super Colour Annuals (there were three, 1949-1951).
One reason for McLoughlin's partial withdrawal from the rotogravure series late in 1948 was undoubtedly the introduction of Christmas annuals to the Boardman line under their Popular Press imprint. The first of these, Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual number one, appeared in time for the 1948 Christmas market. The book's production was rushed because T.V. Boardman, Sr., did not decide to proceed with the project until the last minute. Success of the experiment assured that the title would continue and another Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual appeared in time for Christmas every year through the 1961 issue. Given the success of Buffalo Bill, it is hardly surprising that the "Adventure" annual series was soon added to the Popular Press offerings. Both annual series offered a mixture of American comic reprints (mostly from Quality) combined with British original comic stories (almost always by the brothers McLoughlin), text features, puzzles, gags, and games.
After the 1948 issue, each Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual took Denis, who had almost total creative control over the project, about six months to produce. He began with a blank dummy of the Annual and positioned each story and feature to get the layout. T.V. Boardman had to approve each project and a representative of Woolworth's Department Stores, which were the primary outlet for the annuals, had final veto power. McLoughlin obviously lavished his attention on the Buffalo Bill annuals. Here his graphic story-telling reached new heights. As the series progressed the amount of research for each story obviously increased contributing a high degree of realism to the series. By the last few annuals almost all of the stories were based on solid history. "Ghost Towns," for example, in 1958's Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual number ten provides a poignant comment on the passing of the American West with a level of understanding unique for the time and seldom seen in comic book westerns of any period.
Denis McLoughlin had the same creative control over the "adventure" annual series. Unlike the Buffalo Bill annuals, the Adventure series was not numbered. It also tended to contain a much higher percentage of reprinted American material and shows evidence of much less research. The first of these publications was Ajax Adventure Annual which appeared in 1952. The order of the adventure series is probably Ajax Adventure Annual in 1952; Adventure Annual, 1953; New Spaceways Comic Annual #1, 1954; Okay Adventure Annual, 1955-1957; Okay Annual of Adventure Stories, 1958-1959; and the First Book of Heroes, c. 1959/60. Both Adventure Annual and New Spaceways Comic Annual feature Roy Carson and Swift Morgan stories. New Spaceways also features a variety of Quality super-hero reprints including Plastic Man and Doll Man and has art by Reed Crandall and Matt Baker, making it, of all the Boardman annuals, the most desirable to collectors in the United States. The First Book of Heroes was designed by McLoughlin but only has one page of his art.
With the single exception of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual, by the mid to late-1950s, Boardman comics were no more and, after the 1961 issue, Buffalo Bill folded as well. Denis McLoughlin continued to illustrate book covers for Boardman Books until 1967, when the company folded. Even prior to Boardman's demise, McLoughlin turned to other publishers for work. Even though Boardman retained the copyright, the last four Buffalo Bill annuals were prepared for Dean & Son Publishing, Ltd., and printed by Purnell & Sons, Ltd., both London firms. After Boardman folded, McLoughlin helped produce several western annuals for Purnell all based on American Western TV shows: The Dakotas Annual for 1963 and 1964, Gunsmoke Annual for 1965-1967, and Bonanza Annual for 1969.
In 1967, McLoughlin went to work for IPC, then the largest comic publisher in the United Kingdom. He took over the art chores on "Saber" (kind of a blonde Tarzan) and also drew "Big Hit Swift" (a cricket strip which McLoughlin detested) for the pages of Tiger. From March 20 to October 21, 1971, McLoughlin illustrated "Fury's Family" about a boy and his menagerie for Lion. McLoughlin then took about two years off from comics to finish the compilation of Wild & Woolly, his encyclopedia of the American West published by Doubleday in 1974. Although McLoughlin had been promised that he would be able to return to IPC, no stories were made available after the book project was finished.
After sending art samples, McLoughlin found stories to illustrate for the Scottish publishing firm D.C. Thomson and Co., Ltd., in 1974. He has been working for them ever since and contributed to just about all of their adventure titles (all of which are now defunct) including Wizard, Victor, Buddy, Crunch, Bullet, and Scoop. Primarily, however, McLoughlin's work appeared in Wizard. At his height with the company (October 22, 1977), five McLoughlin stories graced the pages of two Thomson titles, Wizard and Bullet. Perhaps the best regarded of McLoughlin's strips for Thomson were "Sign of the Shark" featuring x-agent Jake Jeffords, "The Green Lizard" which was a science fiction tale, and "The Shark" featuring the crew of a German E-Boat during World War II. Unfortunately, the days of the traditional British comic story paper were already numbered by the late-1970s and by 1983, most ceased publication. Denis drew two western features for the 1983 Look and Learn Annual before beginning his monthly stint for Thomson's Commando, a 64 page war comic digest which sees four issues released twice a month (96 issues a year). McLoughlin produced about one issue of Commando a month until his death on April 22, 2002.
Exactly a week after his 84th birthday and while in good health, Denis McLoughlin took his own life. He used a Colt revolver that had been part of his reference collection for years and that friends and family thought was non-functioning. The cause of Denis' death was not immediately revealed in the British press. Exactly why he chose to end his life can never be known. However, he had survived all of the persons dearest to him including his wife, Dorothy, and brother, Colin. Denis and Dorothy had no children.
Like many others who devoted their life to commercial art in the first half of the 20th century, Denis McLoughlin was never paid a great deal for his work. Many pieces of his artwork, the Boardman book covers in particular, which Denis had been promised would be returned to him, were either lost or ended up in private collections. While he made a living, Denis never accumulated much money. Although he had a pension from the British government, he was forced to augment his income by working long past retirement age. He once commented that he never particularly liked illustrating military topics and yet that is what he found himself doing for the last 20 years of his life. Perhaps, had he been given cowboy stories to illustrate, he might have been happier.